For all his infamy, Kim Jong Il got a free pass from the West for his most important legacy: state-sanctioned cruelty.
Now, as his callow third son maneuvers (or is maneuvered by generals) to take over the world's most shuttered state, it is worth reflecting on the staggering breadth of human rights abuses in North Korea, how they were used for so long to keep the lid on the North Korean people, and why many Westerners paid so little attention to what the Dear Leader was getting away with.
Part of the reason Kim's cruelty was often overlooked was the deceptive power of the images that found their way out of North Korea. On TV and in the newspapers, Kim looked too silly to be a world-class monster. On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart often played him for laughs -- big glasses, puffy hair, zippered jumpsuits. Kim was indeed risible, given enough distance from North Korea and enough ignorance of how he governed.
But it was his nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that most effectively kept his government's grotesque human rights record out of the popular imagination, especially in the United States. Thanks to missile launches and nuclear tests, Kim endlessly made sure North Korea seemed really, really scary. And it worked. Neighboring states and the U.S. government became obsessed with containing his primitive nuclear devices and the missiles that might one day deliver them to Seoul, Tokyo, or San Francisco.
North Korean diplomats would periodically participate in negotiations over nukes and missiles, but if concentration camps ever came up (which rarely happened, as outsiders have never been allowed to visit them), they would throw a fit and storm out.
Inside North Korea, meanwhile, Kim adamantly refused to put away the totalitarian toolkit he inherited from his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. Despite constant and aggressive encouragement from Beijing, the younger Kim never committed his government to the Chinese-style market reforms that probably would have fed his people and revived living standards, while preserving his power and perks. Instead, he stuck with old-school Stalinism. As a result, a preventable famine -- history's first in an urban, industrial state -- killed up to a million people before he reluctantly cracked open the door in the late 1990s and allowed in food aid, primarily from the United States.
Needless privation continues, with a third of the population chronically hungry. North Korea is the only country in the world that insists on using its military to transport United Nations food aid. Aid officials agree that the military steals much of this food. U.S. intelligence reckons that severe malnutrition has caused cognitive impairment for millions and speculates that, even if reform were to come, the capacity of North Koreans to revive their country has been severely set back.
For Kim Jong Il, there was a rationale to state-sanctioned hunger: Desperately hungry people do not have time or energy to cause trouble. U.N. nutrition surveys have shown that malnutrition is much worse in rural parts of North Korea, where the government has relocated citizens considered hostile to the Kim family dynasty.
Although he periodically tried, Kim could not stamp out the scrappy informal markets that sprang up in the 1990s to feed the desperate masses. These markets now feed and clothe most North Koreans, while also accounting for most of the country's jobs. Unable to stop them, Kim's security forces have brutally co-opted the markets, extorting bribes from traders and, in the absence of a living wage from the government, using the money to feed and clothe their families. If these gray-market traders do not pay up, they can be sent to nearby camps where they witness and sometimes are subjected to execution, torture, and starvation, according to surveys of North Korea refugees in China and South Korea. Marcus Noland, a Washington-based economist and coauthor of a report on these camps, said they seem to be "the work of a gang, a kind of ‘Soprano' state."
Camps for "economic" criminals are, of course, a free-market twist on the North's political labor camps, which for half a century have tormented not only the perceived enemies of the Kim family dynasty, but also their children and parents. As Kim Il Sung, the country's founding dictator, said, "Enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations."